Night of the Highland Dragon
A shape-shifting dragon-lady in late Victorian Scotland is not my normal cup of tea (well, the late Victorian part is, but not the dragon-lady part!) but I do occasionally like to pick up something a bit different, and this seemed like a good prospect. Night of the Highland Dragon is the third book in a series featuring the MacAlasdair siblings, who are all descended from an ancient line of shape-shifters, and this book features the single female member of the family, Lady Judith.
With her two brothers now happily married and settled elsewhere, Judith is responsible for looking after the family’s extensive estate, for the welfare of everyone in the local village of Loch Arach, and it’s a responsibility she takes very seriously. Strangers in the neighbourhood are rarely seen, so the arrival of a handsome, but gently inquisitive gentleman from London is something she views with suspicion.
William Arundell is an agent for a secret government department whose job is to protect the populace from the various paranormal and supernatural elements that threaten them, whether it be things-that-go-“bump”-in-the-night, satanic cults, or, as William himself puts it, “basic strangeness” . His most recent assignment has involved the thwarting of a dangerous cult known as the Consuasori, and now, he has been sent to the Scottish Highlands to investigate what appears to be the ritual killing of a local boy. In the course of his investigations he hears rumours about the lady of the castle which pique his interest – but nothing prepares him for the reality of Lady Judith MacAlasdair, beautiful, independent and extremely capable; and quite possibly his number one suspect.
William and Judith tread warily around each other, even as they recognise the frisson of attraction between them. She doesn’t want anyone from the outside poking his nose into her business – but when it becomes clear that there is more at work than simple bad luck she and William decide to join forces to defeat whatever evil forces are threatening the village and the country at large.
I enjoyed the book overall, although to be honest, it wasn’t as “different” as I’d expected, as Judith spends probably 90% of the time in her human form – which I didn’t mind – and the rest of the story is an undemanding but entertaining mystery with a few supernatural elements thrown in which only come into really sharp focus towards the end. The problem with the book as a whole is that it’s a paranormal-mystery-romance in which none of those three elements is fully exploited. If I had to choose the part of it that works the best, I’d have to say it’s the mystery – which is intriguing, even though the identity of the villain is fairly obvious. The paranormal elements work well enough, but there is so much that seems to just come out of the blue with no explanation that I was left with more questions than answers. I wondered if perhaps that is because I haven’t read the previous books in the series, although from reading the synopses, I suspect I’d be saying the same even if I had read them. For example, there are quite a few references made to William’s investigation into the Consuasori but it’s little more than name-dropping and a way of setting up the dénouement. He uses a form of magic in his investigations, yet we’re never told how it is he is able to do this.
William himself is an attractive character, clearly intelligent, competent and methodical, and I liked that he is confident enough in himself and his own abilities not to feel threatened by Judith’s powers or strength. I found Judith harder to warm to, though, because she’s so determined to go it alone, she comes across as overly stern and cold as a result. I liked that she was the sort of woman who saw what she wanted – William – and felt comfortable making the first move on more than one occasion, but ultimately the romance is under-developed and there is a lack of chemistry between the leads. Their first kiss comes with practically no build-up, and their relationship seems to be based on lust rather than any deeper connection or understanding between them.
In spite of my reservations, I quite enjoyed Night of the Highland Dragon, although I would have liked a little more consistency of approach in terms of the key elements that made up the story. The book is well written and often wryly humorous, which I appreciated, and I would certainly not be averse to reading more by Ms Cooper, but I can’t give this one a wholehearted recommendation.